Empires and Nation-States: Political Geography

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Empires and Nation-States: Political Geography



Independence and Imperialism. European overseas empires changed significantly from 1750 to 1914. On the one hand, European states lost colonies to independence movements that swept the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially in the British, French, and Spanish dominions. The United States became fully independent of Great Britain in 1783, and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand became self-governing nations within the British Commonwealth by the early twentieth century. Many Spanish and some French colonies on islands in the Caribbean Sea became independent, and in Central and South America Spanish colonies separated from their mother countries as well. The sole Portuguese American colony, Brazil, was also liberated.

New Imperialism. However, in other parts of the globe the pattern was exactly the opposite as the “New Imperialism” took hold in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, Great Britain was expanding its imperial dominion throughout the nineteenth century, especially in southern Asia, adding on average one hundred thousand square miles annually between 1815 and 1905. After Italy became unified in 1860, and Germany became a state in 1871, its leaders were no different than those of other European powers in deciding that international policy must be imperialistic.

Berlin Conference. These designs were clearly expressed at the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885 organized by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of the German


Jules Ferry, twice premier of the French Third Republic between 1880 and 1885, clearly expressed the views of the New Imperialists. He linked French colonial policy with national prosperity and social stability. The lack of an effective policy creating or locating markets for Europe’s industrial goods could breed revolution by depressing wages (because of oversupply of products) and creating labor unrest, yet he also saw clearly that imperialism was rooted in international competition, and, despite the necessity for every successful nation to have a colonial policy, portended war.

Colonial policy is the child of the industrial revolution. For wealthy countries where capital abounds and accumulates fast, where industry is expanding steadily, where even agriculture must become mechanized in order to survive, exports are essential for public prosperity. Both demand for labor and scope for capital investment depend on the foreign market. With the arrival of the latest industrial giants, the United States and Germany; of Italy, newly resurrected, not to mention Russia waiting in the wings, Europe has embarked on a competitive course from which she will be unable to turn back. All over the world the raising of high tariffs has resulted in the appearance of fierce competition. The European consumer-goods market is saturated; unless we declare modern society bankrupt and prepare, at the dawn of the twentieth century, for its liquidation by revolution (the consequences of which we can scarcely foresee), new consumer markets will have to be created in other parts of the world. Colonial policy is an international manifestation of the eternal laws of competition.

Source: Jules Ferry, Le Tonkin et La merepatrie (Paris: Victor-Harvard, 1890).

Second Reich. The negotiations over the scramble for African colonies by Europeans occurred without African leaders present. In an age of Social Darwinism this slight was justified on the grounds that non-Europeans, including Africans, were biologically inferior beings who could only suffer in the age of the “survival of the fittest.”

Markets. The international competition for colonies to serve as markets for home industry exports and as sources for the all-important raw materials for industry (such as rubber, copper, minerals, and, by 1900, oil) escalated in the late 1870s and triggered the New Imperialism. The prime target of European powers was the continent of Africa, so rich in raw materials. By 1900 only Ethiopia and tiny coastal Liberia remained independent of European control. Almost as dramatically, the British, French, and Dutch expanded their empires in South and Southeast Asia. Even the coast of China was carved up into competing European spheres of influences. Russia, too, extended its imperial grasp of non-Europeans in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Siberian Pacific. The New Imperialism, especially Germany’s

aggressive expansionism in Africa and its attempt in southeast Europe, was a prime cause of World War I (1914–1918).

Sojourners vs. Settlers. The expansion of the New Imperialism was staffed by what geographers call “sojourner colonists,” or impermanent Europeans abroad who intended to retire to Europe once their service obligations were completed. If one adds to the imperial cultural map former “settler colonies,” or sites where Europeans remained permanently, like North America, Australasia (collective name for Australia and New Zealand), and Latin America, then the European influence across the globe becomes truly unrivaled by any other continent.

Nation-States. Historical atlases display the changing map of Europe as the boundaries of some nation-states expanded while others contracted. Amazingly, by 1914 nation-states were found not only in western, central, and northern Europe but also in southern Europe, including the Balkans. The nationalist ideology of the French Revolution could not be contained by conservative forces despite the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. Italy in 1860 and Germany in 1871 appear as unified nations for the first time. Piedmont and Prussia acted as cores for the integration of Italy and Germany, respectively. Expansion of these states from their core regions occurred both by peaceful and violent means. Also, nationalists in the new Italy and Germany, as in later nation-states, demanded further expansion to liberate irredenta or unredeemed brethren outside their national frontiers. For example, Italy claimed Corsica, controlled by France, while Germany wanted Austria. As Europeans expanded their empires abroad under the aegis of the New Imperialism, the sprawling empires within Europe were soon to be dissolved in the name of the sovereignty of the self-determined nation-state. Although the Austrian, Ottoman, and Rus-sian empires would endure to World War I, the peace settlement ending the war in 1919 broke them apart. The Germans were also stripped of their colonies. The victors—principally the British, the French, and the Americans—understood the war as, in part, the product of imperial competition, and in the name of peace and international stability they announced the directive of national self-determination that theoretically liberated a nation’s people from foreign oppressors. As a result, Russia lost its western frontier, including Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland, all which became new nation-states. Also, Austria became a “head without a body” as new nation-states of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia split away.


Tibor I. Berend and Gyorgy Ranki, The European Periphery and Industrialization, 1780-1914 (Cambridge …, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 (New York: Pantheon, 1987).

Roy E. H. Mellor, Nation, State, and Territory: A Political Geography (London … New York: Routledge, 1989).

Richard Muir, Political Geography: A New Introduction (New York: John Wiley, 1997).

John R. Short, An Introduction to Political Geography (London … Boston: Routledge … Kegan Paul, 1982).

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